~1200 words, ~9 minutes reading time
When I walk into the tattoo shop on King and 44th, Madame Deschamps (presumably, by the gold-stenciled lettering on the door) straightens from where she was leaning on the counter and sighs. If it was just any sigh, I wouldn’t have faltered. But this is a long, heavy, negro spiritual sigh and it stops me in my tracks.
“I was wondering when you was gonna get to me,” Madame Deschamps says, coming round the counter. Madame Deschamps is a tall lady, big-boned, got a gold bar in one eyebrow and fifty-leven tiny gold hoops going up one ear. They say she’s the first tattoo artist this city ever had but she’s got her arms out like it’s still sundress season and I don’t see not a one on her.
I frown. “You knew I was coming?”
She laughs at me. “You meant to keep quiet? A zombi trying to get tattooed in this city? You think we don’t talk?”
When she puts it that way, my plan seems stupid.
“I need help,” I hiss. And then, “Please.”
Madame Deschamps sucks her teeth, looks at me hard and then says, “Explain it to me.”
It’s simple really. I’m coming apart and I just do not have time for this shit. Martín pulled me back towards life with self-pity masquerading as grief, some arcane words and a diamond needle he had no business having. He stitched my soul back to my body like I was some broken toy that belonged to him, and he did it with more determination than skill and it shows. I can feel— Shit. I can feel myself unraveling, and it’s nothing like the swift-backed raven wings death carried me away with the first time. I feel hunks and slop threatening to fall away. I feel my insides on the precipice of actual, not spiritual, rot. I feel larvae behind my eyelids. I feel— messy. I died once and I have no intentions of dying again. At least not before I find Martín.
But to Madame Deschamps all I say is, “He fucking did it wrong.”
She laughs, a real one this time, revealing a custom grill covering her bottom canines and incisors in diamonds and gold. “And you come to Madame Deschamps to clean up that man’s mess? You ain’t the first. Come on back.”
Madame Deschamps leads me through some beaded curtains and has me lay down on a massage table. Beside it I see her tattoo tray already set up: machine wrapped, squeeze bottles and paper towel. The only thing I don’t recognize is the ink tray. Instead of tiny plastic cups I see a long, thin wooden box with unrecognizable markings burned into its sides. I’m starting to think she really was waiting on me.
I sit on the table, swing my legs up, and lay back with my hands pressed over my abdomen.
“You gon need to take that off, sweetie,” she says to me, not unkindly. Silly of me to forget. Of course my sweatshirt will have to come off.
“We’ll go bit by bit, torso first, hrm? Lower half in another session?” And I nod at her. Rather go slow and get it right.
She squints at me, presses with two fingers at the skin around my shoulders, at the hollow of my neck, near my navel. Seemingly satisfied, she sits back and starts the machine. The needle is an angry hum and just above it I hear Madame Deschamps saying, “This here is a binding. Taking place at two thousand strokes per minute. What one man’s stitches failed to do, let this needle finish.” When she says it, it sounds like an invocation, not just an unhinged last-ditch plan. Her arm hovers over me, waiting for consent to begin. I nod at her, and she brings the needle to my skin.
It feels like other tatts, and also not. The same thousands of white hot pokes my body cannot distinguish from a thin blade slicing into my flesh. Different in that I swear I am belonging more to myself with each passing second. Each dive of needle and ink brings me back to my soul, stitch by stitch, through dermis, cinch and pull. Sitting at the kitchen counter, watching my father make biscuits on a Sunday morning. Kneeling, side-by-side with my grandmother in her garden. Breaking up with my first girlfriend. Flunking out of grad-school. I cannot explain it. It’s pain and glory. Madame Deschamps talks to me through both.
“Must be some love. Got this boy reaching across stars for you.”
My turn to laugh. “Martín brought me back because he was too immature to process big emotions. What he needed was to see a therapist.”
Madame Deschamps laughs that belly laugh again, the real one. “Don’t you have no kinda affection for the boy?” I think about this a minute. I do. Well, I did. Now when I think of him all I feel is anger. Seething anger. I must’ve been quiet too long because Madamee Deschamps sighs knowingly.
“I’ve heard this story before. What he do after? Find another woman?”
“Less questions running around town with a live girl, steada one’s meant to be three weeks dead.” It was inevitable really. Martín truly did not think his plan through.
I caught a glimpse of her once; I’d meant to confront Martín, demand he undo what he’d done, but was caught short when I saw him leading his new girl up the front stairs to his apartment. She looked so much like me it took my breath away. I wondered, should I warn her? Tell her that his love will only ever serve him and never you? Instead I hunched, doubled-over on the sidewalk in the rain, clutching at a pain in my chest I couldn’t make sense of.
Satisfied with the work she’s done on my left shoulder, Madame Deschamps repositions so that she can begin at my right collar bone. The words and phrases she’s using for the binding she says she wouldn’t speak out loud even if she could get the pronunciation right. That there are some things best left unsaid.
“So once you get yourself fixed in this body what you gonna do? Haunt alleyways and bars looking for a man to replace your one true love?”
Ha. “Of course not.”
“A woman then?” Maybe after. Me and my man got some unfinished business first.
“I’m still after Martín,” I say plainly.
If incredulity had a sound, this silence was it.
“And what will you do when you find this Martín?” she asks cautiously.
I plan to eat him. It seems only fair.
But to Madame Deschamps I just say, “Some things are better left unsaid, right?”
This got Madame Deschamps going so hard she had to set the machine down and take off her gloves to wipe at the tears forming in her eyes. “I like you, girl. I’ma need to keep an eye on you. You come see me if you need anything. Not just the next session, I mean anything.”
It feels like a genuine offer coming from her. Not like she’s just saying it just to say it. And I’m grateful because Madame Deschamps seems like the type of person who hasn’t even started to show all her cards yet. It might be I could use someone like her in my corner.
Madame Deschamp snaps on a fresh set of gloves and lowers the table I’m on.
“Next the sternum okay? I’m gonna start here,” she taps at the base of my throat, “And take ‘em all the way down to here,” tapping again at the top of my pubic bone. “The midline get spicy for some folks, if you need to stop or take a break you let me know, hrm?”
I nod again.
“Then let’s go.” And she places the needles against my skin again, bringing me back to myself stitch by inky stitch.
K.S.Walker writes speculative fiction. They like their sci-fi with some horror and their horror with some romance. You can often find them outside with their family or starting a craft project but not finishing it. K.S. Walker has previously been published in several short fiction magazines. If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy their work in FIYAH, Apex, F&SF or Baffling Magazine, in particular. You can find them online at www.kswalker.net or on Twitter, BlueSky, and Instagram @kswalkerwrites.